Weekend Tech Blog: Loving ebooks (one man's shocking confession)

The journey from reading print books to ebooks is not only possible, you might actually enjoy it.

Crosscut archive image.

Skip Ferderber with author Jacqueline Susann in 1964.

The journey from reading print books to ebooks is not only possible, you might actually enjoy it.

Do you hate ebooks? Do you shudder when you see people with those reader things in their hands instead of a good print book? Does your gut tell you the Philistines have won?

The good folks in chat groups like Ebooks hate and I Hate Ebooks share your fear and loathing. As an ebook convert, I see things somewhat differently.

I’ve always been a book person. I recollect being a kid, curled up on an armchair in my bedroom, legs dangling over the side, reading novels instead of playing football with the kids on the block — to my mother's unending frustration. I remember with pride going to my local branch library in Los Angeles and realizing I had read every sci-fi book in its collection.

When I graduated from college, I briefly earned my living publicizing books. The picture accompanying this blog is of me at 22 accompanying the late Jacqueline Susann at a book signing in Hollywood for “Every Night, Josephine,” her first book, about that French poodle sitting nonchalantly in my lap. Jackie did the real work; I was but the dog’s aide de camp.

With a life that took me from coast to coast to coast, moving and storing my many boxes of books, setting up storage lockers just for them, was an immutable fact of my existence. The hours spent discussing books with family and friends, or with strangers on more flights than I care to remember — those were benefits of the booklover's life writ large.

There was also this aspect: I grew up in a home where I was taught that every good home needed “show” books as well as the books I really wanted to read.  I carried that programming into my early adulthood: I had subscriptions to the Book of the Month Club, the Heritage Press, probably others I've since forgotten. I couldn't imagine then not having all 22 volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia. Then I'd order the annual update volumes ... which I never read either. 

Not a month went by that I didn't add something to my library, which meant I constantly needed to develop more storage space. There was also that constant intimidating thought that all those books needed to be read, but where to start? Would I ever catch up? I never stopped buying, never stopped taking pleasure in my books just being there. They were like flowers to be arranged, displayed, rearranged. They were in a sense my doppleganger: "Know who I am through my books" was my mantra.

My conversion to ebooks started in 2004 when I bought the ebook version of “Snow Crash” by Seattle author Neal Shephenson. I had just bought a revolutionary new digital gadget the size of a deck of cards, the now-defunct Dell Axim PDA, that allowed me to do all manner of things: carry an address book, play solitaire, and read books. What a revelation: I could carry books with me with me wherever I went, then pull out this pocket-size gadget and read them at will.

I went wild, buying nearly 120 titles in a four-year period — this in addition to feeding my “real” book habit: probably 20 or 30 annually.

Training myself to read books on a screen the size of a pack of cards was essential. It didn’t come naturally to me, so I chose “The Forsyte Saga,” all 714 pages, and forced myself to read it on my PDA. At first it was difficult: the radically different reading window, getting the screen brightness just right, fiddling with the type size and line spacing, making sure I had enough battery life. But I soon found it a profoundly enjoyable experience.

Speed reading had always been both a skill and a bragging right. Ebook reading changed that habit for the better. I started reading more slowly and carefully, savoring the reading experience itself, and opening my mind to many venerated works I had avoided for years — books by Willa Cather and F.Scott Fitzgerald, for example —instead of my usual menu of history, biographies, and the occasional hot new novel. Such beautiful craftsmanship; such great storytelling.

To my surprise, I was reading more, not less. I could read waiting in line, sitting in my car, waiting for a movie to start, moving from bedroom to bathroom. If I was reading on my smartphone, I could put my "book" in my pocket — not so easy to do with a print book.

If a book featured multiple characters — “War and Peace” for example — I could use ebook search tooks to find the last time the character appeared so I could put him/her into context. If I found a word I needed defined, I would summon up the built-in dictionary within my reader.

Sometimes I would switch the typography, the background color, just to enrich my experience.

There were also significant price breaks with ebooks over their printed counterparts. While that alone may be an attraction to some, no price can make the experience more pleasing if you reject digital books out of hand. Since I found ebook reading highly satisfying at any price, however, lower costs added to the pleasure of ebooks. The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of free titles — including reams of classic works — was and is another pleasureable aspect of ebook reading.

There's also a strong environmental argument for reading digitally and not chopping down forests for our reading pleasure, but it's not generally why people go digital.

About two years ago, I bought a highly controversial book, “The Kindly Ones,” which ran to 992 pages: not exactly a tome I could haul out and read in line at Costco. I later found the same book in the Amazon Kindle ebook store, bought it, and subsequently sold my print version at Half-Price Books. That’s when I realized that the conversion was complete.

I still read print books, still have overstuffed bookcases, but when I hear of a book that excites me, my first impulse is to run to online ebook stores I support and see if it’s available.

Old habits die hard. I understand that; the Medicare card in my wallet should be testament enough to how well I understand the difficulty of breaking established likes and dislikes. But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you, unequivocally, that ebooks enrich my life. I highly recommend you at least try one, even if you have to borrow your kid or your grandkid’s iPad to do it.

Sorry, but I gotta go. I need to switch screens and find out how “The Beautiful and Damned” comes out. (The rumor is "badly," but don't ruin it for me, okay?)


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